Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Remembrance Day

After what seems like a longer summer than usual here in the UK, the rain has finally started to pour, a cool wind has finally arrived and as always, people are building up to Halloween! What that also means is that it is around a month until Remembrance Day, which is on the 11th November.

We are so pleased to say that we have created a FREE Thinking Kit activity for this. More details about the activity are below, but for those of you who just want to get on and try it as soon as possible:

1. If you haven’t already, then download the FREE Thinking Kit App on the App Store (iPads only). Search Thinking Kit App on the App Store or click here.

2. Go to Educator or Learner > New Session > Download Task

3. Enter the Task Code 8386

This is all you have to do to get the activity onto iPads!

The task gives (primary/elementary/middle) school children 24 cards that have pictures, facts and story-based snippets on them. They are asked to read these together and answer the main question, ‘Why is Sarah attending the remembrance service?’ There are also suggested sub-questions too!

Sarah is a young schoolgirl herself and the cards tell a story about her link to Remembrance Day - in answering the question and sorting through the cards, children learn lots about the topic but also develop skills of collaboration, higher level thinking and discussion.

Here’s an example of how a task may go…

The activity opens with all of the cards in the ‘icon’ size, then children start working together to read some:

They could then use the Group tool to sort the cards into named groups, as well as the fun Sticky Tape to show connections - both excellent contributors to making thinking visible, which in turn is a great formative assessment tool:
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email In the meantime, remember, to use this task completely FREE (and you can keep it free of charge forever):

1. If you haven’t already, then download the FREE Thinking Kit App on the App Store (iPads only). Search Thinking Kit App on the App Store or click here.

2. Go to Educator or Learner > New Session > Download Task

3. Enter the Task Code 8386

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

National Poetry Day

The temperature has started dropping, people are discussing Halloween costumes and the layers are creeping out of wardrobes once again. That means it’s October! And in October, National Poetry Day is celebrated every year. (Follow @PoetryDayUK for updates and take a look at #nationalpoetryday.)

On 6th October, especially here in the UK, social media will be filled with extracts of poems and tales of favourites. To celebrate, we have created FOUR free poetry activities for iPads - especially for Year 10s and 11s studying for GCSEs.

Each and every activity relates to AQA English Literature Unit 2: Poetry Across Time, but focuses on a different element of Moon on the Tides. There are:
  • Character and Voice (Task Code 1980)
  • Place (Task Code 7931)
  • Conflict (Task Code 4726)
  • Relationships (Task Code 9626)
They are similar in how they are set up and are ideally carried out after students have studied all the poems in the relevant section of the anthology.

In each activity, there are illustrated titles of poems from on of the sections above. Students must look at these, discuss what each poem is about (if they know), then sort them into groups which they give names to. By doing so, this facilitates students toward comparing and cross-referencing the poems: an essential skill.

It will also encourage discussion amongst students about the content of the poems and their themes, as well as highlight possible gaps which need to be addressed.

All you need to do to download these activities FREE is:
  1. Download the Thinking Kit App - click here or search Thinking Kit App on the App Store.
  2. You or students can then go to the app, tap Educator or Learner > New Session > Download Task then enter the Task Code of the activity you want to try:
    • Character and Voice (1980)
    • Place (7931)
    • Conflict (4726)
    • Relationships (9626)
If you do use the activities, please share on social media and mention us @refthinking. We'll pick someone out at random to win a FREE individual subscription to the tool that lets you/students create such activities as these, the Thinking Kit Creator.

If you have any questions at all, please tweet us or send me an email at

Monday, 3 October 2016

The relationship between critical thinking and 2nd language learning

I was sent a research paper on making reasoning skills visible this week. Newcastle University researchers looked at the different ways such skills could be developed by those studying English as a second language, and the role technology can play.

In this post, we’ll now refer to these students as L2.

Some of the key focuses were on:
  • how highly cognitive and collaborative tasks, written in English, can be very useful if planned carefully.
  • the use of a technology enhanced space and whether it can help.
  • whether Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Environments help internalise new language knowledge.
  • software Digital Mysteries being used by L2 students to monitor communication, higher level thinking and reasoning skills.
The full paper is freely available to read (just click here) but here’s a summary.

Some general highlights:

Previous research (Paul and Elder 2012) suggests critical thinking has three elements: analysing, evaluating and improving thinking. They believe the quality of thinking depends on the ability to reason. Therefore, learning to reason is a core skill.

The very nature of what L2 students are learning means they need to think critically. This is arguably (Robinson 2005) because any task which needs two or more steps to complete, refers to events in the past OR demands reasoning, are more complex (cognitively) than those with a single step or those which refer to events in the ‘here and now’. Something such as joining in a group discussion (in English) requires higher thinking skills.

Using certain technology to assist groups of L2 learners can be helpful, as long as it’s ‘whereby interactions are not only between learners and the (software/hardware) but also between learners themselves’.

The use of Digital Mysteries “not only triggers useful task-related discussions, but also makes the students’ thinking more visible thus more accessible to an external observer such as another student or a teacher”.

Some details on the study...

Participants: Nine postgraduates (ages 21-29) on an Applied Linguistics and TESOL Masters programme.

Before the study: They’d already been introduced to Digital Mysteries as part of a module on Thinking Skills.

Set up: They were randomly divided into three groups.

Mystery (problem solving activity) used: Shopping and Land Use Change. It explores recent changes in urban land use and shopping patterns - all through the eyes of a single mother, Gail. (If you’d like us to transform that task into a FREE Thinking Kit activity, please email with the subject ‘Land Use’.)

One of the main things explored was the presence of reasoning skills and thinking-in-action.

Some highlights from the results and conclusions:
  • Digital, resizable slips (picture cards) encourage joint reading and facilitated thinking.
  • Complex, higher level thinking was shown by L2 students being asked to create and name different categories for the cards, as more than one step was needed to complete. Not only did they have to understand the content, they then had to compare and contrast it to others.
  • “Parallel, as well as collaborative, thinking was observed, moving between individual thinking, thinking together, and mediating each other’s thinking.”
  • Differently shaped arrow sticky tapes did two things: forced students to decide what  connection certain cards had (cause, effect or general), which then externalised students’ interpretations too - making their thinking visible and ready for evaluation.
  • A particular process of thinking skills can be introduced, through the way a task is set up, e.g. Separating comprehension from grouping eases mental workload.
  • Computer Supported Collaborative Learning allows for ‘face to face communication as it specifically encourages talk and the promotion of thinking skills’.
  • Software such as Digital Mysteries ‘can play a significant role in this form of training’.
To round off our blog post, we wanted to share one of the closing lines of the paper:

“We believe that the integration of the teaching of critical thinking skills and more specifically reasoning skills into the L2 classroom can be supported through new technologies. Rather than something that is done to students… (it) should be viewed as part of a broader ecology...where the affordances of the environment as a whole, including peers, teacher and technology come together.”

Skip to section 6 of the paper for the full conclusion.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Brains on the tablet

I hope you’re not eating, with the question I’m about to ask. What do you think of when you hear “Brains on the table”? Probably something unappealing, I imagine. It was a peculiar thing for me to hear in my first week of a new job over three years ago...

When Ahmed (our director and a senior researcher at Newcastle University) gave me a research paper with this title, I’m 97% (no: 100%) sure that he wasn’t trying to put me off the office biscuits. He was actually introducing me to research that spanned back many years, all about the benefits of students externalising their thoughts.

The paper I’m talking about is this one, by David Leat, now a consultant to our company, and Adam Nichols. They explore how, with the use of a paper tool called Mysteries, they were able to see pupils’ “cognitive processes”. Hence their brains being on the table!

Other ways of saying it:
  • making students’ thinking visible
  • providing a window into students’ minds
  • externalisation of thoughts
The key benefit is that by understanding how students think, many things can be identified; such as what they’re doing well and what they’re struggling with. Plus how and why.

Mysteries were first developed by David and the Thinking Through Geography group. Small groups would be given lots of snippets of text, and sometimes images, that usually had a narrative thread to them. One main, open question about the snippets would be asked. Students typically read through the snippets first, then organised them into different piles, before laying them out in a chain to build understanding and form an answer. As well as hearing groups’ discussions, teachers could then also view their final layouts, which were a vision of how students had arrived at their conclusion. David explains “it quickly became apparent that there was something very interesting going on as students manipulated the little snippets of paper”.

Brains on the tablet

During Ahmed’s PhD, he came to work with David, and saw the potential of Mysteries. He gave it a digital transformation and the idea blossomed into what you may now know as Digital Mysteries, the iPad apps that have had over 350,000 downloads across 60 countries. These were developed in coordination with many different teachers, firstly for the UK curriculum then worldwide, and because of their popularity, we wanted to give people the chance to create their own! This is where Thinking Kit comes in - tasks can now be tailored exactly to your students’ needs, or even created by the students themselves.

When activities are completed by students on iPads, we call it ‘brains on the tablet’, and it’s an excellent source for formative assessment. As David and Ahmed say in their article, published in the Creative Teaching & Learning journal (email if you’d like a free copy of the piece), formative assessment “is grounded in talk about thinking and ideas - therefore, any serious discussion generated by the mystery or during the reflection phase, is formative, as it helps shape ideas and scaffold the sense making process”.

  Read more on Moseley et al.’s work here.

Things provided in the app:
  • a structure for collaborative learning. It flips between individual and group work throughout, meaning regular discussion triggers and openly expressed thoughts, as well as concentration time.
  • tools to emphasise cognitive skills, such as ‘named groups’ to visibly categorise information, ‘sticky tapes’ to show connections and ‘notes’ to express ideas/opinions.
  • an interactive playback of the session to go over alone, as a group or even as a class.
As this screenshot shows, all students must tap their name to agree they’ve read the instructions.

As a result of all of the above, the teacher can then:
  • see the current ‘state of play’ but also history (e.g. ‘deleted’ notes and groups).
  • tweak the difficulty of future tasks by removing slips or altering the question.
  • integrate the activity with other lesson planning so that those who finish early can move onto something else.
  • easily transition between a chat with an individual, a group or the whole class.
  • extend the outcome beyond a session (students can print off, email, and reflect upon, an automatically generated PDF report).
Thinking Kit also allows students to do the creating too. Activities could be based on something they’ve learned about in class, a topic they’re yet to be introduced to (so they have to carry out research - see students’ work on migration here), fieldwork or something they simply have passion for and want to help others learn about. In a previous blog post, we talked about how students of Broadwood Primary School created their own iPad activities on various topics; from Batman, to The Twits, to Minecraft! All the while, they developed key digital skills that some had never experienced before.

To see what types of activities we mean, explore our developer page on the App Store. We have many free pre-prepared activities and the Thinking Kit App is completely free. To create your own, or to get students to, have a 30 day free trial (no card details required) at